Viral + fever = scariest thing now

  • So Aunty, So What?
  • Wednesday, 29 Jul 2020

I WAS running a fever and I had never been so anxious about it.

After all, it has been drummed into our heads for months that fever is the first sign of Covid-19 infection, which is why our temperatures are taken everywhere, and anything above 37°C would bar you from entering a public place.

Even before the pandemic bit down hard, I had bought a defensive arsenal of masks, safety goggles, disinfectant gels, sprays, alcohol wipes and an expensive ear thermometer.

For months, my family stayed home and whenever we ventured out, we masked, practised social distancing (as best as we could) and disinfected with the sole purpose of keeping SARS-CoV-2 at bay.

That’s how we weathered the movement control order and everyone remained hale and hearty. Not once did we need to use the thermometer.

Until two Fridays ago.

That was when I had diarrhoea and my ear thermometer was registering 37.5°C and above readings.

I googled to double-check Covid-19 symptoms. Apart from fever, among the most common are dry cough, chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat, nausea, diarrhoea and loss of taste or smell.

I had three symptoms: fever, muscle pain and diarrhoea. So I popped paracetamol for the fever and aches and po chai pills for the runs and took to my bed. If I did not get better the next day, I would go see the doctor.

Saturday dawned and my fever was gone and the runs had stopped. My Covid-19 fears dissipated. I figured I had a 24-hour stomach bug.

Then on Sunday, it was my daughter’s turn to feel unwell. Jill had a bad headache, dizziness and fever. Out came the paracetemol but the fever persisted. The next day, she went to the neighbourhood clinic. The doctor, however, didn’t detect a fever and treated her for vertigo.

But my hi-tech digital ear thermometer said otherwise and she wasn’t getting any better. By the third day with her fever hovering near 38°C, Jill felt she should go to the hospital.

I contacted a doctor friend who works at a government hospital and after describing Jill’s condition, I asked if she should be tested for Covid-19. He advised us not to panic and said she should be checked for dengue first. The place to do it was the hospital’s Emergency Department.

Once there, a nurse asked Jill a list of standard questions like whether she had travelled or had come in contact with a confirmed Covid-19 patient (she hadn’t) and what symptoms she had. She checked Jill for rashes, a symptom for dengue, and she indeed had a few red dots on her leg.

After that, a young doctor came and asked more or less the same questions, listened to her lungs and palpated her abdomen and said her liver felt a bit swollen. Then they took her blood and told her to pee for a urine sample.

While waiting for the test results, they hooked Jill up to an IV saline drip because they said she was dehydrated, which surprised us as Jill was not vomiting or having diarrhoea.

A couple of hours later, her results showed she had no dengue or anything else either. Only her urine was, as the senior doctor who came by described it, “a little bit dirty”.

When I asked what that meant, the reply was vague. I had received a similar vague response when I asked the nurse who had asked Jill the questions whether they would do a Covid-19 test.

The senior doctor also palpated her abdomen and when he applied a bit of pressure on her right side, Jill felt some discomfort.

Now, my daughter suffers from endometriosis and is on medication for that. When she informed the doctor of this, the focus shifted from her fever, headache and dizziness to the abdominal tenderness which wasn’t the issue when we came to the hospital. There was no mention of Covid-19 at all.

Unable to give a clear diagnosis even after an ultrasound scan, the doctor recommended she be admitted for further observation. He was very well-meaning but he was somehow not very convincing when I asked what they would be observing her for.

Jill decided to go home. After six hours in the Emergency Department, we left with antibiotics, urinary alkaliniser, presumably for her “dirty urine”, and painkillers.

The Emergency doctor had told Jill to come back if her symptoms worsened. They didn’t but she wasn’t getting better either.

We had eliminated dengue so could it be Covid-19? We couldn’t rule it out because she had returned to working in the office and had been to rather crowded public places, even though she took precautions like wearing a mask.

We needed to end the uncertainty so five days after her fever started, Jill called a private hospital to book a Covid-19 test. I drove her to the hospital which had set up tents and partitioned cubicles outside to do the needful.

The medical staff swabbed her throat and nasal cavity, then told her to go home and expect the results within 24 hours.

Jill was also briefed that if she tested positive, a medical officer in an ambulance would come to the house and take her to the Sungai Buloh government hospital which has been designated as an infectious disease centre for treating coronavirus infections.

That sounded ominous and as we waited for the results, I thought of the consequences for the family if Jill was positive. The rest of us would have to be tested, too.

My mind went into “what if?” mode. What if my fever and diarrhoea were not caused by a stomach bug. What if I had infected Jill?

What if I had infected others too? The week before I had been to a funeral, met up with friends and went grocery shopping.

That was just me. What if other members of the family were also positive? How many people would be affected by us? How far would contact tracing go?

Those thoughts haunted me on Thursday night. I also felt that if any of us in the family caught the coronavirus, it really proves this invisible enemy is everywhere because we had been very diligent in adhering to the pandemic SOP.

When Jill got an SMS text on Friday morning to collect her results, we heaved a sigh of relief. There would be no ambulance arriving at our doorstep to take her away.

Jill’s hospital visits left her RM1,200 poorer; RM900 at the government hospital and RM300 for the Covid-19 test.

In the end, it left us no wiser about the cause of her fever and headache. Perhaps she had a urinary tract infection as indicated by the dirty urine and the antibiotics eventually took care of it. She’s fine now.

Or it could have been that old chestnut I used to hear from doctors when my children fell ill and they didn’t know the cause: “It’s a viral fever.”

That worked in the past but Covid-19 has changed that. “Viral” and “fever”. That’s about the scariest thing on Earth right now.

The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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column , So Aunty So What , Covid-19 , testing , fever


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